The agony of Ogoni
FoEI Chair Nnimmo Bassey writes about the recent United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) report that reveals the true extent of the environmental devastation, caused by fifty years of oil operations in Ogoniland, Nigeria.
UNEP scientists inspecting a pipeline right of way around 30 metres wide cut through mangroves in Ogoniland. © Victor Temofe Mogbolu/UNEPWhen the Ogoni people demanded a halt to the unwholesome acts of the Shell Production and Development Company (SPDC or Shell) and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the government called them names and unleashed security agents to maim, rape and murder and hound many into exile.
The report on the pollution of Ogoniland prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and released on August 4, 2011, marks the first official confirmation that there is a major tragedy on our hands. UNEP's report unequivocally shows that the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) under the prescient leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa was not crying wolf when it maintained that grave injustice was being inflicted on Ogoniland.
UNEP officials say the report was issued to respond to innuendos. At over $9 million, this must be the most expensive innuendo-dousing report on record. Whether the "innuendo" provoked the study or the release of the study is not known. But if it was that the report was a prelude to resumption of oil exploitation in Ogoniland, it is certainly not doused.
It is shocking that in the face of the Ogoni tragic environment the UNEP report suggests a possible restarting of oil exploitation in Ogoniland. That may be likened to obtaining blood from a dying man.
The report largely says what has been known and said before. But this is official and very valuable. When Shell doled out the funds for the study, they claimed they did so on the basis of the polluter-pays principle. True. Shell polluted Ogoniland, just as they and other companies have done and continue to do all over the Niger Delta.
Claims by Shell that a majority of the oil spills in Ogoni are caused by interference by local people flies in the face of the observations in the UNEP report. The report says the bush refineries, for example, became prominent from 2007. Obviously, one of the conclusions should have been that with livelihoods utterly destroyed, some of the people had to find a means of survival and chose this unfortunate and illegal trade. With UNEP's obvious care not to antagonise Shell in the report, this path was not pursued.
In a critique of the UNEP report, Richard Steiner of Oasis Earth organisation, Alaska, writes: "The UNEP report devotes several pages (161-166) specifically to artisanal refining at the Bodo West oilfield, and correctly reports an unfortunate increase in such between 2007 and 2011. However, in this analysis of oil pollution in this region, UNEP entirely ignores the other much larger source of oil spilled into this same region in that same time period - the twin ruptures of the Trans Niger Pipeline (TNP) caused by SPDC negligence in 2008 and 2009. Together these spills contributed between 250,000 - 350,000 barrels of oil into this system, orders of magnitude more than illegal refining. Much of the oil at Bodo West area likely derived from the TNP Bodo spills." How do these compare to the volume of spills from artisanal refineries?
Professor Steiner also wonders why the UNEP study report says that "no single clear and continuous source of spilled oil was observed or reported during UNEP's site visits," whereas the massive spills at Bodo occurred at the time of the study and the combined spill volume may well exceed that of the Exxon Valdez that occurred in Alaska in 1989.
A break from the past
Much has already been said about the contents of the report and the dire state of the Ogoni environment. A significant problem that may scuttle efforts at acceptable cleanup of Ogoniland is the lack of capacity or unwillingness of Nigerian regulatory agencies to enforce laws and to act independently. Their independence is of course affected by the fact that Shell has infiltrated the petroleum ministry in a deep and total way (remember WikiLeaks cables). If government is serious about regulating the sector it will need to ensure that those called to make this happen are not connected to Shell's umbilical cord.
How, for instance, could government officials certify that oil spills have been cleared up and impacted areas remediated whereas the contrary is the case? According to UNEP there are 10 "remediation completed" sites showing ongoing pollution in Ogoni. Shell's spill management was also called to question as they use incompetent contractors for jobs that require knowledge, skills and equipment.
The confirmation that Shell has poor diligence in its oil spill responses and that our regulatory agencies endorse the pattern raises serious issues about the situation in other parts of the Niger Delta where this impunity continues unabated.
Other matters arising from the UNEP report that call for immediate follow-up include the inconclusive study on public health issues even though a gamut of medical records were surveyed. Same about vegetation and also rainwater that the people turn to in the face of living beside polluted rivers, creeks and waterways.
We now have official confirmation that the Ogoni people are drinking water polluted 900 times above World Health Organisation's standards. We also now know that the ground is polluted up to a depth of 5 metres at some places. We know that there are cancer causing elements in the water and in the air. We also know that there are toxic wastes dumped in unlined pits in Ogoniland. These issues are replicated all over the Niger Delta. But they are heightened in those areas because you must factor in the highly toxic gas flares.
Ogoniland (read Niger Delta) ranks as one of the most polluted places on earth. What is urgently needed is for the federal government to declare an environmental state of emergency here. Ecological problems do not observe community or political boundaries. How the government handles this case will tell a lot about who we are as a people.